Hurricanes steer clear of Pinellas for 90 years

The Great Tampa Bay Hurricane made landfall in Pinellas County in August of 1921. It is the last hurricane to directly affect the county in the past 90 years.

Tom Lovino with the Pinellas County Communications Department travels throughout the county talking to people about the dangers of hurricanes and other catastrophic events. He teaches people about the history of hurricanes in Pinellas.

One of his lessons is that unless you were living in this county 90 years ago, you’ve never really experienced a hurricane here.

Iovino’s May 22 talk at Heritage Village in Largo is posted on the county’s YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/pcctv1. During the hour-long program, he takes people back in time detailing hurricanes that came closest.

“There are many that came close,” he said. “But we haven’t felt the full blunt of a hurricane since 1921.”

When traveling through the county, Lovino hears many stories from people who don’t necessarily take disaster preparedness as seriously as emergency officials would like. Some people live in homes that were built in the 1950s, during the county’s hey day when military personnel who had trained the in the area during the war were moving back after they were discharged.

He said people who live in those 1950s houses believe they are safe since the house “surely has survived lots of storms” since it was built. Lovino said it is easy to understand why people would think that, looking back at all the storms that have hit the state of Florida since 1851.

And while it’s true that there have been many storms in Florida, very few of those storms had an effect on Pinellas, he said.

Lovino uses history to help fight apathy of Florida residents who don’t prepare because they believe they have already experienced a hurricane. Many point to those that passed through the area as tropical storms in 2004, thinking that’s the worst it can get.

Some people have other reasons why they don’t prepare. Lovino talked about some of the rumors and theories he has heard about why hurricanes don’t hit Pinellas County’s coastline more often. The first is that the area is protected by ancient Native Americans who put a blessing on the land. Another theory people use to explain why hurricanes have steered clear in recent history is that the shape of the Skyway Bridge creates a harmonic in the atmosphere that repels hurricanes.

Hurricanes also are supposedly repelled by a big deposit of iron ore right in the middle of Tampa Bay. When the wind blows over it, a negative ionic flux is created in the air.

In addition, there’s the HAARP project – Lovino does not know what the acronym stands for – but he has heard about the giant pulse laser that is fired into the ionosphere, which the U.S. government can turn on and off whenever it wants, to keep hurricanes away. “The truth is the only force keeping us safe is pure luck,” Lovino said.

He talked about the difference in terms – direct hit, indirect hit, strike and landfall. He read a portion of the meteorologists’ definition then explained in non-technical language that an indirect hit is what happens when a storm passes close to an area but only some affects are felt. A direct hit is when the hurricane comes near enough to cause major damage.

A strike is even more blurry when it comes to definition. Lovino simplifies the term by saying a strike is when a storm got really close but doesn’t hit directly, which often happens with a small storm, such as Hurricane Charley, which cut a narrow band of devastation through the heart of Sarasota County in 2004.

Charley strengthened to a Category 4 storm on Friday, Aug. 13 and was forecast to hit Tampa Bay when it made a sudden turn to make landfall three times in Charlotte Harbor.

Landfall is defined as that place where the storm crosses the coast.

“Some people in Pinellas County were disappointed with Charley,” he said. “They thought they would get a snow day. After seeing the area, I can tell you it was no snow day.”

Lovino covered seven other hurricanes that came close enough to cause some kind of damage in Pinellas between 1985 and 1848, including Elena, 1985; Agnes, 1972; Alma, 1966; Easy, 1950; Cuba-Florida Hurricane, 1944; Great Tampa Bay Hurricane, 1921; and the Great Gale of 1848. He showed photos of the damage caused and the front pages of newspapers after the events. He had old photos of the beaches, Old Gulf Boulevard, which no longer exits, and downtown St. Petersburg, which look nothing like they do today. The damage from flooding was most pronounced.

“Salt water flooding is the most dangerous,” he said as he showed a photo of people wading in knee-deep water. “Storm surge, the water rushes in,” he said.

He compared hurricane storm surge to a tsunami, which he said was a shorter duration event. Add in rainfall and wind, and “you’ve got a big problem,” he said.

Probably the most devastating hurricane to hit Pinellas County was the Great Gale of 1848, which is responsible for creating John’s Pass. Lovino said the 1848 storm should prove as a reminder to residents who live on the beaches that hurricanes are capable of causing barrier islands to shift.

“You could find a new pass where you live,” he said.

Lovino said looking back 90 years at damage from storms shows how vulnerable the county is today.

In 1920, Pinellas’ population was 21,000. In 2010, it stood at 905,000. If the Great Tampa Bay Hurricane of 1921 were to strike today, the results would be much more devastating.

He talked about the challenges emergency management staff has in convincing the public of the importance of being prepared and staying prepared for a hurricane or any other catastrophic event. “Some people won’t do anything (about weather dangers) until they experience it,” he said.

He said the March 31 tornado’s were an example of the damage that could happen if a hurricane hit. Only, the 100 mph winds that accompanied the tornadoes lasted only five minutes compared to hours, as it would be in the event of a Category 1 or 2 hurricane.

A Category 1 hurricane has winds between 74-95 mph. A Category 2 has winds between 96-110 mph. The strongest hurricane, a Category 5 has winds of 156 mph and up.

Lovino said despite predictions that 2011 season would be above average, there was really no way to know for sure where a hurricane might make landfall.

Just be ready!

By SUZETTE PORTER

Article published on Monday, June 6, 2011

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